Living with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM)
In addition to autism and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, I have also been identified as having an extremely rare kind of memory which is called HSAM (or Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory). HSAM makes a person unable to forget all or most of their past experiences.
My parents (and also myself) first heard that there was such a thing as HSAM in January 2011, after seeing a 60 Minutes episode featuring the first few people identified with it. Initially I didn’t feel like there was anything too unusual about my inability to forget experiences stretching back to my newborn years. I just put the way I’d fixate on past memories (both positive and negative) down to my OCD. Though my parents said that most people don’t remember in that kind of way, and how they believed that I too had HSAM. Mum asked me if it would be ok for her to send the University of California, Irvine (UCI) an email. The McGaugh/Stark lab at the UCI were the team who had identified and were studying the six people featured in that 60 Minutes story.
After two years of various tests the University of California, Irvine identified me as one of 60 people in the world currently known to have HSAM. For the past year and a half the University of Queensland/Queensland Brain Institute have been studying my case additionally. When researchers (initially) test to see if a person has HSAM, most recollections require calendar dates and/or what day of week certain dates fell on for validation. As a result of that I’m asked many times as to whether I remember events because of calendar dates themselves.
Yet my memories are not actually from calendar dates. This is especially apparent when I recall memories from my very young months, which was long before I had knowledge of calendars or days of the week. Memories more rather come from emotional and sensual recollections, and they are in truth about what we have personally experienced in our daily life. Hence the fact that my earliest memories are remembered in exactly the same way as my more recent ones, despite having no date or time attached to them.
What mainly causes me to relive memories are particular words, scents, emotions or anything visual that is in a similar position as it was at that previous time of my life. So essentially people with HSAM remember life events in the exact same way that a person usually does. The only difference is that as our mind has an inability to discard all or most of them, this happens far more often with a person with HSAM. Events that we relive won’t always be significant events either. They can be as mundane as what we had for breakfast or the clothes we wore on an ordinary day.
The only reason for why dates and times get attached to my later recollections is because our daily lives are very much influenced by time keeping devices such as calendars, clocks, schedules and timetables. But those three things are only a means of measuring time.
So whenever I’m asked about whether I remember life events based on calendar dates, it’s more rather a case of me remembering calendar dates by the life events themselves.